By Senator Lena C. Taylor
During the aftermath of George Floyd, a manager with the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington State (ACLU-WA) asked the question “Will body cameras help end police violence?” At the time, I couldn’t decide if it was a provocative or practical question. I mean, if I know someone is watching, I will do the right thing, right?
In their June 2021 article, the ACLU-WA answered their own question stating “If our goal is to end police violence, we should question whether body cams are a good investment since research shows they do not stop or even curb police brutality while posing known privacy and civil liberties concerns”. But……someone is watching! There’s video! We can see what you’re doing!!
But body cams were not a deterrent when it came to the alleged fatal beating of Tyre Nichols, at the hands of five members of the City of Memphis Police Department. While the nation awaits the release of the footage, initial reports from Nichols’ family suggest a viciousness that was reminiscent of the famous beating of Rodney King. As I thought of this family, I fluctuated between varying roles.
As a mother, I know that I would be inconsolable to learn that my son died in such a horrific way. As a member of the Black community, I thought of the long list of names that have disproportionately been impacted by police brutality. As a legislator, I thought about my work over the years to institute police reforms and ensure that no Wisconsin resident was treated like Tyre Nichols.
After the murder of George Floyd, at the hands of then Minnesota Police Officer Derek Chauvin, I worked to introduce a bipartisan package of bills. The legislature passed legislation to provide grants to police departments to purchase body cams. We voted to require police to post use-of-force policies online and require the state Justice Department to gather more data on use-of-force incidents and produce an annual report. We also sought to create a mechanism for departments to share personnel information during their hiring processes.
Some of the tougher accountability measures were left on the drafting or committee floor, however. We were unable to get real change around use-of-force policies and behaviors. We didn’t secure the chokehold ban and some argued that the bills lacked “teeth” to affect change. At the time, I understood that comprise was necessary to get any reforms through the blue wall of the legislature.
The death of Tyre Nichols is just another reminder of the need to push harder and go further. As I think of this young man and his family, the words of the ACLU-WA haunt me: While it is clear that video footage, including body camera footage, has played an important role in driving forward the conversation about police accountability, the evidence on whether body cameras are an effective tool for actually delivering police accountability is mixed at best.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. The law may not change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless.” The laws (didn’t stop these officers), but if the system works it will restrain them for the rest of their lives